Paul's Boutique remains their masterpiece, even if its genius is mostly borrowed from old funk vinyl sitting on the Dust Brothers' shelves. The 1989 album--still their poorest seller, mostly because it didn't have to fight for its right to party--is the Beastie Boys' post-hip-hop triumph, a slingshot around the moon after the nasty-boy rap and Zeppelin pastiche that was 1986's Licensed to Ill. It's their Boys-to-men transformation, going copper on their way to the hall of fame--no one bought the record, but it's bound to become their legacy down the road, even if it's available for the nice price. But if Paul's was their full-length fulfillment, then "Sabotage" was their four-minute conquest, the finest single of the past decade and then some. The rolling bass line, the pop-metal guitars, and the babes-in-copland video provided the epic high to the summer of 1994.
It's been that long since the Beasties released an album (not including B-sides and EPs), four years since Ill Communication came roaring straight outta Silverlake with punk-rock throwaways and dub-hop experiments and phat-boy jams and other such rollicking nonsense. It was easy enough to mistake it for a carbon copy of 1992's Check Your Head, but it was more a consummation of that album's white-punks-on-dope trash-can aesthetic--it was as much an homage to their hardcore upbringing as it was their attempt to take hip-hop into the garage. But they could only go so far with the avant-jerk experiment; sooner or later, Mike Diamond (Mike D, founding editor of Grand Royal magazine, the Harper's of pop-culture detritus), Adam Yauch (MCA, better known these days as best friend to the Tibetans), and Adam Horowitz (King Adrock) would have emptied the fridge of all its tall-boys and bologna.
Perhaps it was inevitable enough that their first full-length album since Ill Communication would disguise itself as a return-to-roots collection; the Beasties are, after all, as much contemporaries of Run-DMC and Public Enemy as they are products of Kurtis Blow and Grandmaster Flash--they're so old-school, they cracked their books in a one-room shack. So when Hello Nasty kicks off with a shouts-to-my-peeps, scratchadelic track called "Super Disco Breakin'" that borrows Run-DMC's "Sucker MC's," it's as much a reclamation of their past as it is an homage to their long-forgotten homies--if nothing else, the Beasties have made a nifty career by looking back even as they stumble, stoned, into the future.
But Hello Nasty is hardly the late 1990s Licensed to Ill; you can't redefine what you've already reinvented. It's just one more hybrid concoction that owes as much to Lee "Scratch" Perry (the dub pioneer and Grand Royal cover man who makes a track-length cameo here on the dreary "Dr. Lee, PhD," proving some inventors are best left in the history books and not on records) as it does to Biz Markie (the Beastie brother) as it does to Leopold Stokowski and Stephen Sondheim (both sampled here--in the same track). It ain't revolutionary (the single "Intergalactic," with its Kraftwerk breakbeats, is just Afrika Bambaataa's "Looking for the Perfect Beat" without the funky-fresh stink), and its freestyle rap doesn't offer any more different strokes than Arnold Drummond ("Three MC's and One DJ" sounded great when it was called "The New Style" on Licensed to Ill).
Perhaps you can only go so far stealing history to make your own present; art created from a pop-culture junkyard is bound to rust away and fall apart after so many listens. The reason Licensed to Ill holds up so well after 12 (!) years is that it portended a revolution. Paul's Boutique lasts because the Beasties, confused about where to go next, reveled in the Dust Brothers' pilfered chaos and turned archaic funk into tentative rock; and by then, they were already sampling Public Enemy--now, they just namecheck Chuck D.
Hello Nasty doesn't last so long after repeated listens; its expiration date is last Monday. It simply has no flow, no context, no reason to its silly rhymes ("I find I'm not playing with a full deck/I'm up to my neck like Toulouse-Lautrec"). Everything after "Super Disco Breakin'," "The Move," and "Remote Control"--the holy trinity of opening numbers, sparse and full of surly grooves--is a comedown: "Song for the Man" sounds like a Beck toss-off, "Song For Junior" is quote-unquote ironic Tiki-lounge wallpaper, the indie-rockie "I Don't Know" offers proof that no Beastie Boy should ever sing, and "Electrify" should get them some soundtrack work when this whole retro-future thing dies down.
But maybe this is what happens 16-plus years into a career that began as a slumming-it joke: You can only find so many ways to deliver the same punch line, and after a while, experimentation turns into novelty turns into routine. The new style has given way to the same style, and sometimes, Boys just outgrow their old clothes.
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